Prof. Patrick McGovern On Science, Shamans, and Sex, pt.2

Ξ October 18th, 2010 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, PORTUGAL, Technology, Wine & Politics, Wine History, Winemakers |

Innovative yet attentive to the evidence, radical but scientifically responsible, Professor Patrick McGovern, the Scientific Director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, takes us on a more detailed examination of the science supporting his speculations of our intimate human relation to alcoholic beverages.
 
“To understand the modern fascination with alcoholic beverages of all kinds, as well as the reasons why they are also targets of condemnation, we need to step back and take a longer view. Alcohol occurs in nature, from the depths of space to the primordial ’soup’ that may have generated the first life on Earth. Of all known naturally addictive substances, only alcohol is consumed by all fruit-eating animals. It forms part of an intricate web of interrelationships between yeasts, plants, and animals as diverse as the fruit fly, elephant, and human.” (pg. 266)
 
Naturally his formal presentation may be found in the pages of his marvelous recent book, Uncorking the Past, The Quest For Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages; so it is that here, in part 2 of the interview, he artfully highlights key concepts such as the neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, our hard wiring, if you will. From the book,
 
“The neurons in our brains communicate via chemical messengers, or neurotransmitters. Alcohol coursing through the blood prompts the release of these compounds into the synapse, of the gap between the neurons. The neurotransmitters travel across the synapses and attach to receptors on the net neuron, triggering an electrical impulse. As we sip that drink, neurons fire at high speed seemingly ad infinitum. Different types and quantities of neurotransmitters activate specific pathways of neurons in our emotional and higher-thought centers. More alcohol leads to more activation, which we experience as the conscious or not-so-conscious feelings of elation or sadness, dizziness, and eventually stupor.” (pg. 272)
 
And it is this intimate relation between brain chemistry and alcohol that forms the basis of Prof. McGovern’s cultural conjectures.
 
“Once our species started down the road of drinking alcoholic beverages, there was no turning back. At the same time that the human body and brain adapted themselves to the drug, those unique symbolic constructions of humankind–its languages, music, dress, art, religion, and technology–were emerging and even reinforcing the phenomenon. How else can we explain the near-universal prevalence of fermented-beverage cultures in which alcoholic beverages (whether wine, beer, or mixed grog) came to dominate entire economies, religions, and societies over time?” (pg. 276)
 
Part 1
 
And so we resume our conversation.
 
Patrick McGovern I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Georgia, up in the Caucasus, but there you’ve got a wine culture that probably gone on for millennia. Whether you’re having an ordinary meal, or are going to church, any special celebration, it is all centered around wine. They have other foods that they bring in to it, but if you’re really going to sense your oneness with life and celebration, your union with other people, wine really captures that the best.
 
Admin Now, historically speaking, the best wines, the best made wines are going to be reserved for the higher castes, whether the priests or the royals and their courtesans. Can you locate in diverse ancient cultures moments when the making of fermented beverages shifts from a small scale collective effort to a quasi-state monopoly?
 
PM You can see that as you go from Neolithic to the Bronze Age in all parts of the world. In the Neolithic you have people doing a lot of experimentation, discovering which plants and animals they can domesticate. It could be the Middle East where barley and wheat, or grapes are important; it could be China where rice dominates; Africa with sorghum and millet–but every area’s got it own set of ‘founder’ plants. In the Middle East, for example, there are eight founder plants. So it was in the Neolithic Period when people discovered a lot about which plants they could use and started developing ways to prepare the foods. And they discovered different secondary fermented products, cheeses and so on.
 
Then we actually see those societies getting more complex with time. You start getting descriptions that suggest that they’re starting to produce on a much larger scale, and that there are very specific people now charged with the responsibility of making the wine, making the beer, cheese, whatever it happens to be. Whereas in the Neolithic Period it was more of a closed community that was more experimental and probably more in touch, again, with their environment and with each other. But once you get into these more complex cultures roles are split up, mass production begins. You feel distanced from what the original purpose of that food and beverage may have been.
 
I think that’s what you’re getting at, the desacralization process. How do you escape it once you no longer have those small communities where everybody is out there really learning about their environment, testing things, being open to change, in touch with each other? How do you keep some sense of that in a very complex society where your role is so limited? You might be a father with a child but it not like you’re part of a larger community like you used to be. You’re not going out to find out about nature like you used to back in the Neolithic. So I think it’s very difficult to recapture that spirit unless, I suppose, you return to communities like that. But how many people are willing to do that, unless you’re Amish or some 60s radical settling a commune! (laughs) But even there maybe it is that so much has already been lost or distorted that you can’t really get back to the way it was in the Neolithic.
 
Well, even the issue of polygamy versus monogamy would be difficult inasmuch as inebriation reduces social inhibitions. There are all kinds of historically inherited, if not unconscious, taboos that remain stubbornly modern, that in fact, following Freud, preserve a community’s integrity. It has been said that polygamy was supplanted by monogamy, however theoretical its practice, precisely in order to preserve a community. It therefore seems one could argue that alcoholic beverages can also work to undo communities.
 
PM Yes. I think you could write a history about how taboos have come in to try to regulate alcohol’s use. Even genetically you could say of the flushing reaction of the Chinese that it may be a genetic solution to over-drinking from an earlier period. We know the Shang dynasty emperors of 1200 B.C. and before were huge drinkers. Maybe even going back a lot further than the Shang dynasty we do have evidence that there were a fair amount of alcohol-related vessels that are very similar to what comes later. So you can push it back quite a ways. But if there was a lot of heavy drinking and it was undermining the fabric of the society, how do you control that? Well, genetically you might have something like the flushing reaction that would keep people from drinking to excess. Or the social prohibitions, taboos, come into play.
 
Like you say, there could be other aspects to a society, too, especially since alcohol breaks down inhibitions and leads to more sex in a generalized way; and not necessarily with just one man and one woman! So, yes, if you look at human behavior you could make a case that left to their own devices they’ll do a lot more than monogamy! (laughs) Again, we don’t really have the evidence from those early periods. But you can certainly come up with hypotheses.
 
With the idea of monogamy, I’m also trying to get a sense of the tension between growing societal complexity, the rise of the state and official religion and the emerging specialization within alcoholic beverages and their producers, perhaps accompanied by drink related taboos. Might inebriation have, at some point, become a threat to the primitive state and to an early codified religion, perhaps driving both, certainly with respect to sex and the understanding of our own bodies? If through the use of alcoholic beverages a group collectively enters into a creative, sexualized spiritual dimension, as it were, then perhaps we’re also seeing in later society the willful disintegration of collective spirituality itself. Taboos would then function as regulatory principles and have as their target the source of re-creation itself: a woman’s body. I mean, to control alcoholic beverages is to control an unpredictable spirituality writ large. Maybe not! I know you’re not a cultural anthropologist…
 
PM Communication among themselves as a community within nature was probably more direct and less desacralized or fragmented as things become increasingly more complex. I’m not saying they lived in an ideal world, either. Obviously the life spans were very short. But at the very least they had a more integrated existence, I think. It is that kind of environment that you could then have people making real discoveries, which they did: the domestication of plants and animals, and much more. Clearly there was a lot of pain and suffering and early death. Everything we see around us today has so many millennia of history attached to it. So you don’t really know how constrained things have actually become. And you can never really peel that away, first of all because you have limited evidence to work with to know what life really would have been like. There might have been a more democratic awareness of a community as such, and Nature.
The situation changes whether you’re in the Arctic or in the jungle… but humans will adapt to any of these circumstances. You can still find peoples today who are more integrated rather than socially fragmented by a large, complex society. I think this has obvious implications for the role fermented beverages play in the society.
 
More to the point, you have the Bacchic poets, especially their love poetry where wine is equated with love-making, really. They say it could be the love of god, a mystical union, that’s part of it, too. Like the Song of Solomon, you can have an over-arching sense of the oneness with being, but how does that really get expressed in this world? One way it is expressed is by physical union. That taps into some tremendous, deep wellspring that you don’t otherwise feel. It unleashes the same kinds of neurotransmitters, the pleasurable compounds, as happens when you drink alcohol. Similarly, and I try to bring this out at the end of the book, when you get new ideas you are also unleashing–and this gets back to what you said about me thinking in a young way–those same neurotransmitters as well. New ideas, seeing new relationships is exciting! So as your brain releases these compounds, you feel elation. The same with sex. The same with fermented beverages or wine. It opens up your mind to a great deal of pleasure!
 
And this is what I’m trying to get across in the book: the way wine and fermented beverages function is to open you up to other worlds. And this could be a phenomenon that has been with us since the beginning of our species, how language and music developed… these things are all interconnected, I think.
 
Could you say more about the development of language? I suddenly remember a professor of mine who once spoke of the near-universality of the sound and meaning of ‘mama’. No matter how inebriated one is one can always call, in whatever tongue, for ‘mama’!
 
PM What I try to argue is that language probably develops out of music. If you drink a fermented beverage, if you drink wine, you might feel like dancing or singing. This would be a stimulus for articulating sounds, I think. I don’t know if there are any specific words from such scenes, but the origins of most of the words has some relationship to whatever that thing is. The word for wine in Egyptian is ‘irp’, like the sound you might make if you had too much to drink–’burp’! That’s been seriously proposed as the origin for that word from ancient Egypt.
 
Part of the argument here is that music is universal. Language is universal. Fermented beverages are universal! Somehow there must be a relationship going on from an early stage, even if we can’t determine all the specifics.
 
But perhaps it is also true that we can’t think it properly absent a deeper reflection on the sacred. We have to employ a kind of hermeneutic, or an eidetic reduction, if you will, to help clear away the profane debris barring proper historical thinking.
 
PM Perhaps. It’s like the taboos you’re talking about. There’s been such an accumulation of stuff that really doesn’t tell us what happened originally. It’s just the stuff we have to live with, that we struggle with in our society. It’s like the language you use, it is second nature. You almost have to push it away in order to see something different based on the evidence you’ve got.
 
I had a similar experience recently with a clay jar wine from Vila Frades, Portugal, a Cistercian wine specifically intended to be a way to approach God. And made in the same way for hundreds of years. How hard it is for a modern to think such a wine.
 
PM That when they drink the wine that it somehow puts them in touch with the divine…
 
Well, that’s part of an older protocol. My effort, and it was a dismal failure, was an attempt to think the wine without the modern apparatus of wine tasting concepts, all the supplemental stuff I’ve come to know. It proved very difficult to think the wine in its proper context, especially to remain faithful to the spirit of those who made the wine. In my own work I’m trying to reintroduce alternate ways of understanding wine that is not dependent upon marketing, upon the critic’s and the consumer’s fetishizing predilection.
 
PM Some people are trying to get back to these older traditions. There is a place in New York City called Anfora after the ancient Greek word for jar. [Website under construction. Twitter handle: AnforaNYC] They are trying to bring in wines, especially from Italy and France. And in those countries they are starting to do all of their fermentations in pottery jars, sometimes underground, rather that in barrel or stainless steel tanks. They are trying to incorporate ambient yeasts to get as much out of the natural product as you can. And clay is thought to help better with the oxygenation process. This is basically following ancient methods where maybe at those times–and most of the early Greek and Roman writers spent a lot of time talking about wine and how to grow grapes, how to vinify–maybe they were more aware empirically of what was happening and actually did something that was a higher quality, more interesting and complex product.
 
And many of these traditions are hanging on by a thread.
 
PM Oh, yes. There’s Gravner in Italy… of course, sometimes it gets into superstition with biodynamics and lunar cycles. But taking the clay from their local area, older vines of mixed parentage, you know, trying to make the most of what their native plants and soils and yeasts give them.
 
I see biodynamics as suffering from an excessive formalism, obsessed by a kind of fidgety, antiseptic spiritual technology, if you will. Biodynamics attempts to sacralize through formal techniques and practices.
 
PM I think the ancients probably had a much greater appreciation for the sacred elements. Again, with the Bacchic poets you can sort of see one way it might be expressed. But the Greek and Roman writers can sometimes seem like a modern science text book. Then every so often they’ll introduce the notion of some sort of god is acting. And in the Bible God is the great vintner, he stamps out the grapes of wrath against the nations rising up against Israel. There are all kinds of analogies drawn between grapes, wine, and the deity. Ultimately you have the funerary feast of the Last Supper where the person to die is represented by wine and bread.
 
Looking at other cultures one sees the same thing going on. In Mesoamerica with chocolate beverages there is a very intimate connection through associations and symbolism with God or gods, as with chicha as well. When people drink these beverages and have their celebrations and feasts, they are in some sense identifying it with a sacred dimension. It becomes more than an ordinary food!
 
God could be another name for no longer being yourself, of being in an oceanic space without understandable or recognizable boundaries.
 
PM I think we’re all wondering about that. Striving for that. Even in our desacralized world we recognize that wine and alcoholic beverages take us outside of ourselves. There is such contradictory thinking in our society about it! I’m looking out the window here at Penn University. In another building they are probably doing studies of some of alcohol’s negative properties! Yet at all the alumni events there is always going to be some kind of alcoholic beverage served.
We really don’t know our own minds.
 
Amen. What do you mean by ‘extreme beverages’?
 
PM Extreme beverages are those that aren’t just based on one natural product, like grapes made into wine or barley made into beer. Extreme beverages are mixtures of different substances. Neolithic beverages seem to be, for example, made of just about anything they find in their environment. They just throw it in and see if they can get a fermentation to occur. The residue of the beverages we do find are these mixed sorts. And this makes sense in that if you have limited sugar resources and you don’t understand the process of fermentation, you might want to have as many things in there as possible to be sure that fermentation gets going. But it could go beyond that. It could be that they are really playing with different flavors, or trying to come up with mixed substances that have beneficial medicinal properties, for example. But then things get increasingly specialized with societal development, as we’ve noted.
 
The rise of the money form, commodification… Do you have another book in the works?
 
PM Not as such. I could do spinoffs that have to do with one beverage or another. I’ve thought about that; and coming up with different kinds of beverage recipes, elaborating a bit more on some of the beverages that are there. It could be extreme beverages, it could be about fermenting in amphoras… I’ve done some experimentation in that, too; and then also the beer-making with Dogfish Head, trying other formulations.
 
We’re thinking of making an Egyptian beer. When you go into the tombs you can see all the depictions of the winemaking and beer-making processes. There are a lot of myths and deities associated with the fermented beverages, too. There is a lot of textual and artistic evidence, and also chemical and botanical evidence, too, about what kinds of alcoholic beverages they were consuming and the place they held in the society, and still do. That are a few of the ways the ideas in this book can be expanded upon.
 
Thank you very much, Patrick.
 
PM Thank you, Ken
 
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